April 26, 2017
By Collin Eaton
A federal judge in Houston has ordered Exxon Mobil to pay a civil penalty of nearly $20 million for releasing 10 million pounds of pollutants into the air from its Baytown refining and chemical complex over the course of eight years.
In a ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge David Hittner said evidence showed that the Texas oil company's emissions from 2005 to 2013 put it in violation of the Clean Air Act 16,386 times.
The environmental groups Sierra Club and Environment Texas Citizen Lobby filed suit against Exxon in 2010, but the district court ruled in the company's favor four years later. Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Hittner's original decision and ordered him to reconsider various aspects of the case, including the number of violations by Exxon.
In a 101-page decision, Hittner accepted the plaintiffs' argument that Exxon collected more than $14 million in so-called economic benefits by delaying actions that would have curbed the emissions, such as improving plant automation and enhancing emissions monitoring with infrared imaging technology.
"This penalty should send a message that it doesn't pay to illegally pollute," said David Nicholas, a Massachusetts attorney who represented the plaintiffs.
Exxon Mobil said it's considering legal options, including appealing the ruling.
"We disagree with the court's decision and the award of any penalty," Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said in an emailed statement. "As the court expressed in its decision, Exxon Mobil's full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty."
Exxon's Baytown complex, which includes a chemical plant, olefins plant and refining operations, employs some 7,000 people about 25 miles east of Houston.
Unless Exxon appeals the decision and wins another courtroom battle, it will pay the $19.95 million civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Philip Hilder, principal of Houston law firm Hilder & Associates, who helped represent the plaintiffs, said he believes it's the largest judgment of civil penalties returned under a Clean Air Act citizen suit. The Clean Air Act has a provision that allows citizens to file suit against companies they believe are in violation of federal environmental laws, especially if the government is not enforcing them.
"We're thrilled with the ruling and excited Exxon is finally being held accountable for thousands of violations," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. "We're glad they'll face significant penalties and hope that'll serve as a warning to other companies."
The environmental groups called on four of their members who had lived in Baytown to testify against Exxon. One witness said she had often smelled odors while growing up in Baytown and took medication for allergies that went away after she moved.
Exxon also called on three Baytown residents, including one who said he never worried about the flares or emissions events at the complex.
At the time of the suit, Exxon had already paid $1.4 million in fines to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Harris County for violating state air pollution laws.
Since 2010, Exxon Mobil has lowered its emissions at its massive Baytown complex, which has been in operation since 1920 on more than 3,000 acres along the Houston Ship Channel. The court said Exxon has spent $1 billion in recent years on regulatory compliance and projects to improve the complex's environmental footprint.
Exxon Mobil is nearing completion of a multibillion-dollar petrochemical expansion at Baytown, a project that is not supposed to increase emissions. Metzger said his group and others will keep a close watch on emissions levels next year after the expansion is finished.
"There's still work to be done," he said.